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Wednesday, 26 September, 2001, 15:36 GMT 16:36 UK
Chekhov Love Letters enchants
Irene Worth and Paul Scofield in I Take Your Hand in Mind
By BBC News Online's Steve Schifferes

In a touching return to the London stage, the distinguished actor Paul Scofield is making a limited appearance at the Almeida Theatre to read the love letters of Anton Chekhov.

The reading, appropriately enough, takes place on the set of Platanov, the Almeida's latest production of an early Chekhov play at its temporary home in King's Cross.

Paul Scofield: best known in Man for All Seasons
Paul Scofield: best known in Man for All Seasons
It is one of the last productions of director Jonathan Kent, who has said he will be stepping down as head of the Almeida after 11 years.

The readings, compiled from more than 400 letters that Chekhov wrote to his favourite actress, Olga Knipper, whom he later married, shed light on both the artistic and emotional life of Russia's greatest playwright.

Scofield is simply magnificent as the tormented Chekhov, who is wracked by illness and struggling to find the voice that led to his last great plays, The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard.

But his greatest suffering is the separation from Olga, who is performing his plays in Moscow while he is trying to recover his health in the Black Sea resort of Yalta.

Love and Passion

The letters, signed "I take your hand in mine", tell of his love and passion for Olga, and their rhythm tells of the closeness and tragedies in their marriage - as when Olga suffers a miscarriage and comes close to death in Moscow.

Irene Worth: passionate love letters
Irene Worth: passionate love letters
Mr Scofield's performance is more than matched by that of Irene Worth, who manages to convey the passion, the anguish, and the anger inherent in love with a simple gesture or change of tone.

Her exasperation with Anton's mother and sister, who come and live with him in Yalta, her frustration at life in Moscow, and her final journey to take Anton to his ultimate death in a German health resort, are all conveyed with tenderness.

And in a touching finale, Ms Worth reads the letters that Olga continues to write to her dead husband, trying to recreate the feelings and the memories of the past.

The two actors are on stage without a break - and scarcely a drink of water - for nearly two hours, and it is an astonishing performance, the two imagining the passion of youth despite their own age.

Mr Scofield is still best known for his role as Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons - but his 50 years on the stage have spanned both Chekhov and Shakespeare.

The tumultuous applause that greeted the actors, both when they appeared and when they finished their performances, seemed a fitting tribute to the last of the generation that included Laurence Olivier, Sir Alec Guinness, Sir Ralph Richardson and Sir John Gielgud.

I Take Your Hand in Mine continues at the Almeida Theatre in London on Sunday 30 September.

See also:

30 Dec 00 | Entertainment
Paul Scofield: Man for all seasons
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